The New Abnormal
(Cult / RCA ***)
The Strokes made their entrance at a time of crisis. Is This It, the band’s deeply disillusioned debut album came out on Sept. 11, 2001.
Now the New York quintet fronted by Julian Casablancas is back with its first album in seven years, with a title that eerily — if accidentally — speaks to the way we’re living now.
The New Abnormal was produced by Rick Rubin, known for resuscitating careers going back to Johnny Cash’s in the 1990s. The pairing underscores that the Strokes’ heyday of skinny-jeans cool is long past.
So, does The New Abnormal make them relevant again? Not entirely. The album is an uneven, if largely effective, comeback. Signature touches are there — brittle, clipped rhythms and Casablancas’ sneering vocals — and some songs get past acting aloof.
Sometimes, they’re even funny, as on “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” when Casablancas complains about how difficult it is to find fresh followers. ”I want new friends,” he sings. “But they don’t want me.”
The Strokes never seemed like candidates for long-term survival. But by the end of New Abnormal, the band sounds committed, and stronger than you might suspect. “Gone now are the old times,” Casablancas sings on the 6-minute “Ode To the Mets.” “The only thing that’s left is us.”
— Dan DeLuca
The Dream Syndicate
The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s songs and guitar have been the Dream Syndicate’s center since the band began on the Los Angeles Paisley Underground scene of the early ‘80s. But that’s not so on The Universe Inside, their third album since Wynn rebooted the group with new guitarist Jason Victor and keyboardist Chris Cacavas.
The tracks here were carved out of improvisational jam sessions, and the vocals are mostly conspiratorial recitations interspersed within long, driving grooves.
Although the band has explored long songs in the past— notably the nearly nine-minute “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” from 1984’s Medicine Show — they were usually Velvet Underground-meets-Crazy Horse guitar duels. This time Cacavas’ keys and guest Marcus Tenney’s sax and trumpet often take the lead.
The album’s five songs are surprisingly psychedelic and proggy, with echoes of German motorik bands like Neu! and Can (on Apropos of Nothing” and "Dusting Off the Rust,” both about nine minutes long), of jazz fusion albums like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (on the 20-minute “The Regulator”), and especially of early Roxy Music (on “The Slowest Rendition,” 11 minutes).
Those reference points may come from around a half century ago, but The Universe Inside sounds fresh, and trippy.
— Steve Klinge
Smoke and Mirrors (A Phonographic Memory)
(Fantastic Yes ****)
An ode to a drug dealer? That’s the audacious, overarching concept of the new album by Dan Montgomery.
As the Memphis-based son of Pennsauken, N.J., explains in the liner notes, the relationship that began in a Camden rowhouse in 1982 between the then-teenaged Montgomery and the adult trafficker transcended their drug connection and had a profound impact on the musician’s life.
Beginning with the scene-setting “The Winter of the Summer of Super Freak,” Montgomery tells this story in song without romanticizing any of it. Numbers such as “Hard Time” and “Prison Rodeo” paint flesh-and-blood portraits of his ex-con connection, helping to explain how he could become a sage and father figure to an impressionable teen.
The second half of the album focuses on the relationship’s effect on Montgomery. “So many things I learned from you,” he sings on the title song. Like the advice he gets in “The Right Time,” when Montgomery was hesitant about making his first foray into the music life: “Opportunity hardly ever knocks ... stop waiting for the right time.”
The music is wonderfully varied, ranging from roots-rock and psychedelic-tinged hard rock to country and blues, with some Tex-Mex and Cajun spice, helping each number stand on its own as well as serve the overall narrative.
Over the horn-accented Memphis R&B groove of the finale, “Missed Him,” Montgomery sings, “I just wanted to say I made it out OK.” Yes he did, and in a career of consistently stellar work, this is the crowning achievement.
— Nick Cristiano